71 Coltman Street, Hull Truck Theatre, 7.30pm tonight; 2.30pm and 7.30pm tomorrow. Box office: 01482 323638 or at hulltruck.co.uk.
HULL Truck was not formed in a van – that came a little later – but a squat in Coltman Street in 1971, founded by actor-musician Mike Bradwell when unable to find work.
“I wanted to be nuisance,” said Bradwell, a firebrand iconoclast who sought to make theatre about, by and for real people. Even the left-leaning, arts-championing Guardian met his scorn.
To kick start Hull Truck’s 50th anniversary celebrations in 2022, artistic director Mark Babych asked Hull playwright and film writer Richard Bean to tell the story of those Coltman Street revolutionary beginnings.
The result is a “riotous new comedy” from the ever-irreverent Bean, a former stand-up and psychologist with a love of people showing two fingers to – or at least challenging – authority and the status quo, be it Francis Henshall in One Man, Two Guvnors or Kempton Bunton in the newly released film The Duke.
Bean did extensive research for 71 Coltman Street, interviewing Bradwell and fellow hippy-haired revolutionaries, and what appears on stage is a fusion of the truth and the not-so-true but you wish it were, matched by the songs of Richard Thomas (of Jerry Springer: The Opera notoriety).
Sara Perks’s set design is an open-plan lay-out of the freezing-cold 71 Coltman Street, where Bradwell (Kieran Knowles) and his fellow unemployed actors burn furniture to keep warm. Guitars, drums and a piano, sofas, cushions and theatre posters fill the room, where they improvise a play with no name, no plot, no budget and no bookings. Their phone is the nearest Hull white phone box.
There are two forms of funding theatre, says Bradwell: Arts Council support or, in their case, social security, and Hull is the perfect place to be “looking for work” and setting up a theatre company because there are no jobs. Whereas, don’t sign on in Stratford-upon-Avon, he advises.
Played by Babych’s actor-musicians, in the pioneering company are Linda (Lauryn Redding), Bradwell’s girlfriend; up-for-anything Manchester lad Stew (Laurie Jamieson) and knows-everything-but-rather-charming, public school-educated Julian (Jordan Metcalfe). Enter Bea (Hanna Khogali), newly up from Oxford.
Bradwell encourages, nay, demands, that they take on the guise of potential characters for plays, when on the streets, for research purposes, be it Stew’s comedic Italian Dave, Julian’s vicar, Bea’s thief with a troubled past or Linda’s former hippie.
As if 71 Coltman Street were not already ripe with characters, Bean serves up two caricatures of chaotic comic delight: no-nonsense, leather-tongued landlady Mrs Snowball (Joanne Holden), who holds no truck with theatre luvvieness, and her equally blunt, not-all-there son, Our Seth (Adrian Hood), first encountered bringing a huge dead dog into the flat. Can two people scene-steal the same scenes? Oh, yes they can.
Another Hull Truck favourite, Matthew Booth, is more low key in his cameos, but you will particularly enjoy his Hell’s Angel, Daz, delivering frozen fish and a nonsensical story.
Bean’s celebrates the character of Hull itself, just as it drew Philip Larkin and John Godber to the coastal city, and he captures the world of making performances brilliantly too, not least in a scene that draws on Lee Strasberg’s workshop techniques.
71 Coltman Street is long and yet it flies by, constantly on the move, adding more characters, building momentum, passing social comment and showing all sides of Bradwell.
Bean spears all things 1971, from flares to a raucous, coarse Hull Truck cabaret night at the Hull & East Riding Institute for the Blind, audience bingo et al, before a climactic performance of debut play Naked turns into a sideshow for Mrs Snowball and Our Seth.
Thomas’s rough and ready songs add to the comic mayhem, and whatever is thrown at them by Bean, from agit-prop drama to cabaret, satirical comedy to Ortonesque farce, Babych’s cast are terrific, especially Knowles’s grouchy but resolute Bradwell and Metcalfe’s Julian, winding him up so unintentionally.
The Covid curse put paid to last week’s performances, but undaunted, in an echo of Bradwell’s pioneers, the bloody-minded Hull Truck spirit has prevailed.